Monday, March 27, 2017

Genesis 11:27 - 12:9 "The Call of Abram"

A year ago, we ended our studies in the first 11 Chapters of   Genesis.  We shall now consider the next section in Genesis 12 - 25, under the general heading, ‘Lessons from the  life of Abraham’. Today  we want to simply  focus on the  call of Abraham, who was originally called Abram[1].

The story of Abraham begins actually in Chapter 11:27: “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot…”. At the head of the families in this section is Terah, not Abram. We would have expected Abraham to lead this new section, since after all, he shall be the father of the Hebrew nation as well as the father of the greater family of faith which will include the gentiles.[2] But Terah is mentioned as the first patriarch. The reason for this is that Terah was not only the father of Abram, but he was also the grandfather of Lot (the son of Haran, one of Abram’s two brothers. He was also the great grandfather of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, and the great-great grandfather of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. The roots of the nation of Israel revolve around what Terah produced.[3]  But Abram is undoubtedly the main character of these chapters. 

He was born approximately 2000 years before Christ, and 4000 years from where we find ourselves today in history. He was born in Ur of the Chaldeans (11:28), also known sometimes as the Land of Sumer and Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Ur was once a port city on the river Euphrates and was situated near the Persian Gulf. Ur was located in today’s modern Iraq. The whole region has silted up since then. Ur has a very old history. Archaeologists have discovered the evidence of an early occupation at Ur (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC).  “These early levels were sealed off with a sterile deposit of soil that was interpreted by excavators of the 1920s as evidence for the Great Flood of the Book of Genesis”. [4]  One of the famous structures, dating back to the time of Abraham is the Ziggurat at Ur, a huge structure like the pyramids of Egypt.  The evidences point to a series of advanced civilizations. But the structures did not serve to glorify Yahweh, the living God.  The Ziggurat was built in honour of the moon god. Joshua makes mention of the fact that Abram’s family worshipping other gods [Josh. 24:2,15].
Before we get to the 12th chapter it is important to note that Terah and his family had set out for Canaan (11:31), but on the way there they settled in Haran, about 900 kilometres northwest of Ur. Haran was also a strategic trading centre, also noted for its worship of the moon god. Stephen,   the martyr tells us in Acts 7:2 that Abram’s call had come to him in Mesopotamia, in Ur before he had come to Haran.   Haran was not to be the place for Abraham and his offspring. God’s original purpose was for him to settle in Canaan.  Many set out on a journey and never arrive  at their destination, the promised land. Many a person has begun  a Christian  pilgrimage only to get stuck in a place or position  where they never get further in their walk with Jesus. But Abram does not get stuck in Haran. He leaves his father Terah and his extended family behind, and accompanied by his wife, Sarai  and servants  and his  nephew Lot,  he heads for the  land of promise. And so Genesis 12 becomes an important,   pivotal passage in Genesis.  All that follows from here will have a huge effect upon the world.  
This section then begins with a divine calling. God called a man named Abram, a pagan man living in a pagan culture, a man who wasn’t looking for YAHWEH, the true God of the Universe.  But God was looking for Abram, and  He calls him, and this becomes the pattern of God’s dealings with His chosen people. All God’s children are sought out by God, chosen by God, and born of God. [John 1:12,13]  No one decides to be born. No one gives birth to themselves. And so it is with the spiritual birth. God always initiates the process. He calls His people with an irresistible call, and they respond. This was true of   all the famous leaders of the Bible ….Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It was true of the apostles whom Jesus called one by one and by name. It was true of Paul the apostle, called on the road to Damascus, not very far from   the ancient city of Haran.  This call is also true of every believer in history. It is true for you and me who have saved by the Lord Jesus and believed in the Lord Jesus.  God calls us in many ways. 

  • The North African church father Augustine (354- 430 AD) hearing children reading words from a book in a garden, was led to read the Scriptures which convicted him of sin and which led him to confess the Name of Jesus.  
  • Martin Luther first called upon God in a thunderstorm.  This  produced a series of events   which led to his conversion.
  • John Newton, in 1748 aboard a slave ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal, Ireland and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, he called out to God. The cargo shifted and stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton marked this experience as the beginning of his conversion to Christ. 
  • Your own testimony may not be as dramatic in its beginnings. The call of God may have come to you at an early age through the faithful testimony and prayer of your parents or grandparents.  But it always begins with that particular call from God. This is the mystery of the doctrine of election- a theme  that is found through the entire Bible!    
Abraham was 75 years old when God called him and his wife Sarai to leave Haran to go to the land of Canaan.  And so we read:  “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (12:4).  He did three things: He left his country, his kindred, and his father’s household.  (12:1).

A word of caution. Sensitive Christians, wanting to be obedient to the Lord sometimes struggle with a text such as this. How do we apply this text to ourselves?  Does this mean that you must be like Abram, when you become a Christian?  Does this mean that you have to leave your home, friends and country and move somewhere else? I hope to offer you some helpful counsel. In the first place understand that you are not Abram. His calling was a unique calling. God had a unique work for Abram.  He was going to become the father of a new nation called Israel. But more than that, he was going to become the father of all true believers through the ages.   

But there are some principles that do apply to us:

1.   We all have to leave, what John Bunyan in his Pilgrims Progress called, the ‘City of Destruction’.  When we are converted we are called to walk away from our former way of life and set our hearts on pilgrimage. We set our eyes on the road that leads us to the heavenly city, the city prepared by God for those called by Him. Hebrews  11:8-10 shows how this was true  of Abraham. Now understand this. The land of Canaan is symbolic and typical  of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city that has foundations, who’s Designer and Builder is God. Having received the call from God, we must respond with repentance, by which we turn our backs on our old life, the life in the city of Destruction, and follow the way that the Lord Jesus calls us to follow. In this we become the children of Abraham, the father of faith. This does not mean that we must leave Windhoek. It means that we must leave our sinful ways. The next point will make this clearer.

2.      We leave our former friends in the city of destruction and we find our new friends in a new fellowship called the Christian church.  Here we are called to find our closest friends. They are called our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are people like us, who have heard the call of God to leave their life of sin, and to follow the Lord Jesus in the fellowship of His body, the church. These people are God’s people, and therefore they are our people. You leave behind your drinking and drug buddies, the gossips and slanderers,   and all those who are described in Galatians 5:19-21. You join the people committed to the lifestyle encouraged in Galatians 5:22,23.  We shall see a little later in our studies that when Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed by God, because of their wickedness, Lot’s wife could not leave the city of destruction. Her heart longed for her former companions, and she kept looking back, and therefore she too was destroyed. This brings us to the next  point.

3.      We leave our  father’s household. Notice that Terah had actually intended to go to Canaan with his family, but they never got there because they settled in Haran (11:31). Terah never got to where God wanted the family to be. And so Abraham, who heard the clear call of God, had to move on. When we become Christians we are called to love God more than our family. That is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:34-39.   Although we honour our father and mother as never before when we become Christians, we can never replace that love with a greater love than we have for God. Although our families are to be loved and cherished as a gift from God, families often have  sin patterns and reluctances  to  fully serve God. The  Christian family member often feels the pain  of having to separate  from them to serve the purposes of God.


“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and  will make your name great, so that  you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [12:2,3].

The God who came to Abram, comes to him with an amazing offer of such magnitude that we can scarcely comprehend it.  Let me put it to you in simple language.
(i)                 God promises to make the family of Abram into a great nation.
(ii)         He will be uniquely blessed by God in this sinful world. Those who turn against him will experience God’s wrath on them.   God loves and protects His people.
(iii)              Abram’s influence will be seen and felt in all the families of the world. Everywhere there will be men and women of faith in every part of the world and among all nations, at all times, until the Lord Jesus comes again! Men and women of  the kind of faith that Abraham possessed  are being born again  right now in Africa, China, India, South America, etc. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (v.3).

We pass over a few details and we come to v.6.   Abram meets the Canaanites.  There will be huge battles between his grandchildren and theirs in time to come. This land was the region settled by the descendants of a man called Canaan. We have met him before in Genesis 9:25. He was the cursed son of Ham. Canaan’s offspring became a most evil civilization, steeped in idol worship and cruelty and depravity.   This was the land that YAHWEH called Abram to possess.   He did that by building altars in key places. He did it in Shechem (v.7). He did it near Bethel (v.8). These altars were like stakes in the ground or beacons   in the whole land, saying that this land belonged to YAHWEH and his called out people. 
God honoured Abram’s faith. Almost a thousand years later the descendants of Abram were living in the land. They had been led into it and had conquered it under Joshua. He made his final speech to them just before he died, and where did he make it? Under the great oak tree still standing there in Moreh. (Josh. 24:25-28).  
YAHWEH triumphs over the pagans!  Abram had left his mark on this land. But Abram would not become the ruler of this land. His offspring would. And that is a story that waits to be told at another time.

REVIEW AND SUMMARY : The Call of Abraham

From our text we have learned  concerning

1.      the irresistible  call to belong to God
2.      the call to be obedient to God
3.   the call to trust God  with his future dealings in the world. God’s promises are certain and faithful. Do not be intimidated by the times that you are living in.  Ur  and Sodom  are symbolic of all the evil civilizations that  now lie buried in the   sands of time.

Amen !

[1] Abram : Not a spelling mistake!  Abram means  “exalted father”.  In Chapter 17:5  we shall see that God renames him Abraham, “ father of a multitude”
[2] See Romans 4
[3] Philip Eveson: The Book of Origins ,p.244
[4] ;  UR: The first Phases  – Sir Leonard Wooley, p.13 ( King Penguin Books, 1946)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Acts 11:19-30 “ Antioch - This Is What a healthy Church Looks Like!"

We  now take a look  at the amazing expansion of the church, as  she  grows   in leaps and bounds,  now even beyond the borders of Judea and Samaria, and  now literally to the uttermost parts of the earth! Truly speaking, the church of God is unstoppable. 
What is true of Exodus  1:12 is true of the church: But the more they were oppressed, [i.e the Israelites by the Egyptians] the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.“
Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed  for his faith,  wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith,  shortly after the apostolic fathers had all died:  “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”

"I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it", said our Lord Jesus  to Peter [Matt 16:18]. If you are a Christian, and a member of God's church, you are part of a body which carries the endorsement of God Almighty. Whatever He brings to life shall stand, for He governs the universe for His own glory and  the good of his church, the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son. The church is  the apple of God’s eye. She is precious in God's eyes, and He loves  her so much, that He has redeemed  her  members, each one personally  by the blood of the crucified and resurrected  Jesus. And  all this reminds us  of  Genesis 3:15 -  the redemptive outflow of the promise made in the Garden of Eden,  that the seed of the woman will crush  Satan’s head. The purposes of God in bringing  a people for His own possession into existence will prevail. The gospel of Jesus will triumph. 

At face value, nothing much may be happening here in Namibia, a nation that has been privileged to have received the gospel  200 years ago, and  our nation presently shows so much spiritual hardness. But, be assured that  the Spirit of God is constantly at work in the world. And He is working in the most impossible paces and situations on earth.   This makes  the  gospel the most powerful declaration ever given to mankind!  After Pentecost (Acts 2), this message of the gospel spread like wildfire - first in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria - and now unto the uttermost parts of the earth.  The church  is healthy and thriving  in the midst of severe challenges.

In our passage we find a  model of a healthy  church.  It grew despite persecution and  perhaps because of persecution;  it grew in numbers; it grew in reputation; it grew in knowledge and sound doctrine; it grew in love and care.

The underlying  theological  truth is that  "the hand of the Lord  was with them." Nothing is impossible with God , and nothing is  possible without God.  I take this  fact for granted as we observe  the marks of a healthy growing church in the  case of the church at Antioch. 

As we take a look at this  expansion of the church, noting the example of  the development of the church in Antioch in particular, we note that :

1.    The church expands despite of persecution and because of persecution: In Acts 8 we noted how the  opponents of the gospel vented their anger against  the followers of Christ, particularly after Stephen, in Chapter 7  spoke very boldly  concerning the  true work of God in the  life and history  of Israel, severely rebuking  the religious authorities of his day , who promptly began to stone him to death. In  Chapter 8  and in 11:19  we  note the extent of the scattering that took place. The early Christians were basically forced out of their Jerusalem and out of their country.
This still happens today. The Middle east  is  once again being systematically purged of Christians.  The church of the last days (i.e. between Christ's ascension and His second coming  - the last 2000 years  and what is left before Jesus’ return) will grow in the midst of tribulation and suffering.  Jesus said so! [John 15:18-27; 16:33].  My friend Henry Jooste, a SIM missionary, currently in Europe working with Refugees,  wrote on Facebook  on the 10th of March: 
“One of the most amazing things we have seen, is the positive impact Churches have made in this crisis. How they have stepped up and got involved. God has been glorified as many asylum seekers, immigrants, migrants, refugees have through the love shown, the care taken, involvement in their lives, they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ alone. Many have been baptised, become members of churches and got involved in sharing their new found love with others. Lost souls saved. They say, it makes it all worthwhile. To God be all the glory."

The amazing truth is that the church been growing in this world despite persecution. It is true, that it seemed at times that her light had all but gone out ( e.g. in the Middle Ages - dark ages), but it is also true that she has not been overcome by the enemy,  because her Lord rules and reigns. Her Lord is her Saviour, and the great Shepherd of the sheep will surely bring all His chosen people home. The church will exist even in tribulation, because He is her Keeper.
It is not by human logic that we can understand the fact that the church can grow because of persecution. It is greatly comforting to know, that although Satan hates the church, and though he seeks to destroy the church, God is able to reverse his evil intentions, and turn them around for His own glory. The church can grow in the soil of trials and afflictions.  This is even true in the experience of individuals. Many people, even though they would never wish for trials, are able to testify, that their times of trial have been personal times of growth and expansion.

2.    The  church grew numerically and influentially:   A great number of people believed and turned (epistrepho)[1]  to the Lord [v.21]. The people that were scattered by the persecution,  proclaimed the gospel now not only to Jews, but to gentiles also. This point is deliberately made in vv. 19,20.  The reason given  was “ that the hand of the Lord was with them“  [v.21]. “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” [v.24]. This great revival was clearly owned of the Lord, and it happened in the worst of political times and under religious persecution!  Whilst numbers are not everything, there can be nothing more encouraging than seeing the gospel taking its effects in the lives of  so many people. We must never get cynical about numbers. At the same time we must always remember that a crowd is not an achievement, but an opportunity!

3.       It grew in reputation: Antioch was a wealthy and magnificent city, and was described as one of the "eyes" of Asia. It was the third greatest city of the Roman empire at that time (after Rome & Alexandria).She was located in Syria.  She had a large Jewish colony, but was dominated by Greek culture. The church at Antioch became  a church that people talked about in Christian circles. News reached the church in Jerusalem [v.22]. It was a church with a positive testimony, provided here by Barnabas: “He saw  the grace of God and he was glad.” [v.23]. And,  very  significantly , this church was the first one with which the name of the Lord Jesus Christ became identified. It was hear that the disciples were first  called Christians [v.26]. The church is Christ's body and the body of a man goes by the same name as the head. The church's reputation was of such a nature that the people that surrounded them, clearly saw them, and gave them the nickname "Christians". That was their reputation. Can people see that we are Christians by the way in which we behave?

4.       It grew in knowledge and depth of doctrine. It was a church under the influence of good teaching and sound doctrine. Here was a church that was willing and hungry to be taught.  It caught the attentive eyes and ears of Barnabas, whose name translates as “son of encouragement”. He saw the need for further teaching. Immediately he set out to correct this situation, and went to find Paul  in Tarsus. Barnabas, by all accounts was a gracious and a humble man, and he knew that Paul possessed something which he did not. Paul had a powerful, logical and able mind. He had been taught by Gamaliel,  a biblical scholar and teacher of reputation. But more than that, Paul received a profound understanding of Christ, whose servant he became and whom he proclaimed everywhere.  Wherever  Paul  went, he preached Jesus, and so he did to the to the people of Antioch: Jesus in His divine nature ; Jesus  in His human nature; Jesus in His various offices as prophet, priest and king; Jesus Christ as the only hope for mankind!  Something very important happened here as a result of the doctrinal teaching . The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile  had come down , and  a new category  of  person emerged : Christians! They are those who belong to the household of Christ. They are followers of Jesus Christ.

We are told, that together they taught  great numbers of  these  people  (vv.25 - 26) Their teaching about Christ clearly took hold of the lives to whom they preached Christ! An expanding church cannot simply expand in numbers. It must also grow in depth of the knowledge and understanding of Christ, and  what He expects of us. We must not be simply content to bear the  Name of Christ. The beauty of his Name must be seen in us! [1 Jn. 2:6 – Whoever says that he is in Christ must walk the same way as Jesus did]. Discipleship  must follow conversion!  And the fruit of  a true conversion must show itself in Christlike behaviour.

5.      It grew in love and care.  vv.27 – 30.  In response to a prophecy, that there was going to be a severe famine in the entire Roman world, which would have included Judea,  the church decided to help their brothers living in Judea, who were apparently struggling. So, this church at Antioch practically cared by sending their gift with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Good works are the overflow of a  converted heart, and so it was in the  case of the church at  Antioch 

The church  did not only grow in spiritually challenging times; it did not only grow numerically  and intellectually and spiritually, but it also grew in good works of love and kindness and care and consideration of others  in the midst of  a great famine all over the world. In the worst of times,  these Christians   were not hoarding . They were giving!

Are you encouraged?  We are living in  spiritually challenging times.  And we are living in times of drought and economic depression.  And the temptation is to draw the conclusion that the church can never flourish in this kind of society,  as it  would under more ideal circumstances. But nothing could be further from the truth, because it's in this pagan society that the Christian church in Antioch flourished,  so much so that  the pagan's  of Antioch  saw them as a distinct people: These were Christians. These were  true  followers of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters  lift up your heads. In such challenging  times  the  true church of our Lord Jesus Christ   becomes  more relevant,   not less relevant. Be encouraged what God will and can do  to a church  so committed to Jesus , as  was the church at Antioch.  Amen

[1] Aorist tense indicating an immediate and decisive turning change

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Acts 10 :9-23 “Vegetarians, Pork-eaters and the Gospel“

Last time[1]  when  considering  Acts  10,  we saw that this chapter represented a  turning point in Luke’s narrative of the story of the early church. The whole story is repeated  in Acts 11, because Peter will go back to Jerusalem  to give an explanation of what has happened. We see here that the gospel is going beyond the boundaries  of Jerusalem and Judea  (i.e. the territory  of Judaism),  and beyond  the boundaries  of Samaria (the territory  of  half cast Jews),  to the ends of the earth, to the territories  of the gentiles. 

At that time I alluded to one of the  key issues addressed here,  but  did not take time to explain the transition  from  the Old Testament  food laws (cf. Leviticus 11 ;  Deuteronomy 14)[2] to the New Testament abolishment of these laws.

The key character in our story is Peter, to whom Jesus had given the keys of the kingdom (Acts 16:19). Peter is indeed the first apostle   to the gentiles. We have already seen that he had opened the kingdom to Jews on the day of Pentecost, and then to the Samaritans, and now to the  gentiles.  The transition happens here in this chapter.  Peter, who is at this time in Joppa (10:6) receives a vision from the Lord, whilst praying at the 6th hour – 12 o’clock noon. In this vision he is called to eat all sorts of animals, which according to the law would have been forbidden. Hence his reply in  10:14 - “By no means  Lord… I have never eaten anything that is common  or unclean”. However, the LORD insists a second time, and note what He says to Peter,   “What God has made clean do not call common.“ [v.15]

So, at the first level of understanding, God is saying something to Peter about   changed rules of eating. He is saying 3 times [v.16]  i.e. insistently, “Peter,  don’t question me, eat!”    The question arises, is God going against His own Word in the OT?  Or is there something more that we need to understand?  In order to determine this, we first  need to look at some other passages in the Scriptures.

The clearest instruction on this matter comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus in Mark 7:1- 23, where He is confronting the Pharisees on the subject of what is truly “unclean” and “clean”. The Pharisees were complaining that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands, another matter unthinkable for Jews – but clearly, this is not something that Jesus was too concerned about.  He is far more concerned  about  another matter. He shows them that the expression of  true faith is not primarily a matter of handwashing or not cooking a meal on the Sabbath,   or of  eating and drinking only specific  things. Jesus was more concerned about  the  matters  of the heart. By the heart the Bible means, the seat of our mind, will and emotions.  Then He makes this very important announcement in Mark  7:15,  “Nothing outside a man   can make him unclean  by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man, i.e. from the inside.  He explains in v.19 that this means. The heart, the inner disposition, the will  is  the source of that which makes  a person  unclean. Then to reinforce this again, Jesus says to His disciples, “Are you without understanding….so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn’t go into His heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” 

Now notice what else  is said  in v.19. Jesus declared all foods clean! That means that you can eat pork, crayfish, crocodile steaks and even broccoli and Brussel sprouts with thanksgiving. That means that you can go into a foreign culture, and eat Mopani worms and other foods such as Peter had to do when he went to these gentiles, and eat that which was set before him, with thanksgiving, and without asking many questions!

Does that mean that Jesus has set aside the dietary laws of the OT? Yes it does! In fact there are many things that God sets aside under the new covenant because they are not essential to the gospel. The main thing that He sets aside under the new covenant (and this was prophesied in the OT) is the way in which God’s people were redeemed and cleansed from their guilty consciences. In the OT He accepted the sacrifices of bulls and sheep as sacrifices for sin offerings. In the NT that is not valid. Only by looking to Jesus, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29) are we redeemed.
In the same way, He sets aside circumcision.  The symbol of belonging to the New Covenant   people is not circumcision, but baptism, by which Jesus means believers’ baptism i.e. the baptism of those that have themselves actively believed, and not infant baptism.
Furthermore, we do not observe Passover, nor any of the Jewish feasts, do we? What feasts then do we observe? Those that  have to do with the  person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ – the gospel of Christ. 
Here is a challenge : Is your Christmas , Easter , Ascension day , Pentecost  focus  gospel centred ? Otherwise you’re back to  the  way of the Pharisees  who  put more focus on outward displays than  the heart.

A word of clarification:  The emphasis of the O.T. is not, as some would believe, on outward ceremonies. The O.T. like the N.T.  primarily focuses on God-centered thinking and behaviour. The 10 commandments, the moral law of  God,   have  to do  with God-centered living.  However the sinfulness and deviousness of the human heart  turns everything into second hand religion, focussing on  religious observance rather than  on the heart of true  worship.     The default of the  sinful human heart is to divorce  worship from God , so that we worship created things rather than the Creator who is forever to be praised and blessed (Romans 1:25) .  The truth is that at the end of the law  is Jesus.
What does it mean   when Jesus  said, “I  have not come to abolish the law and the prophets … but to fulfil  them?”  Precisely this, that the law in itself was an incomplete (temporary)   revelation , until the Son of God appeared, making everything clear , including the matter  of eating and drinking.  The same principle  can be  determined from  1 Corinthians 8

The second level of understanding of this passage has to do with Peter’s mission to the gentiles.There is obviously a connection between the eating   of  ‘unclean food ‘ and  the  association between  Jews and ‘unclean gentiles‘. Remember, that Jews as a rule never ate with gentiles. Again, it must be stressed that this was not the OT teaching.  The OT affirms time and again that all nations were in God’s purpose. There was a place for non- Jews to be integrated into the faith of Israel, as proven by Jesus’ own genealogy (Rahab and Ruth –  the gentile  women of  Matt 1:5) . Rather, this had become an extra biblical habit among the Jews. It  had become  a form of apartheid or racism,… fallen- human-  being- thinking, if you like.  This  is a lesson  about racism. It's one thing to have nice little theories about the gospel and its relationship to Gentiles when you’re in Jerusalem. It is quite another thing to actually go to the house of a Gentile and eat his food. And that's what Peter is being asked to do, and that's why he's protesting so much.
The Gospel is for EVERYONE!  There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free[3], because we are all one in Jesus Christ, and there is only one way of salvation: By grace alone,  through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; and whoever that person is we're all one in Jesus Christ. That was a hard lesson for Peter  and many modern Christians. Peter, though he  had made some progress in  his thinking along the way as we have seen   was now instructed to break that habit by God’s command. And old habits die hard! Paul had to rebuke him later in Galatians  2:11ff, for going back on this command,  because he  acted  hypocritically.  

God, in Christ,  had demolished  the dividing wall of hostility between  Jew and Gentile.  Jesus has  declared racism over and done with. The gospel changes everything. You can read all about that in Ephesians  2:11-22. That too changed under  the New covenant. Under  the Old Covenant, Israel developed  as a separate nation, but under the New Covenant, which was  anticipated  by the  OT,  the church would be comprised  of every nation, tribe and tongue. Heaven will be the final reality, when all nations shall assemble before the throne to praise the Lord  ( Rev 7:9ff) . So then the  eating of “unclean food “ with “unclean people”  points us  to   new realities of the kingdom. That is precisely what Peter declares in  10:28 when he confessed  before Cornelius and the assembled  gentiles : “” You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God  has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. THIS IS THE DEEP  TRUTH BEHIND THIS PASSAGE !   

At face value  it may be about food, and  by their abstinence from certain food Israel distinguished themselves  from the other  nations, but the distinction really  led to so  much more – namely  racial pride and  segregation. The whole thing had to be undone!  The Jews, of whom Peter was one, had made several wrong conclusions about the food laws. One conclusion that they had drawn was that because they didn't eat pork, they were better than other people. We meet vegetarians like that, too. They believe that simply refraining from eating certain things made them superior.

In our day there is a renewed emphasis by number of people who have declared themselves to be vegetarians,  and who think that by doing so they hold the  moral high ground.  Some maintain that the eating of meat is ethically wrong, because cruelty is done to animals. There are some Christians who suggest that the symptoms of the fall is man's domination over creation rather than his empathy with it. They  would point out that prior to the fall, nothing is said about  eating meat, and that man was created to be  vegetarian.  Be that as it may. We now live in a fallen world  where anyone of us scarcely know  what it means to eat in a balanced way, and we all die  because of this. But the supreme theological fact is not  that death is caused by incorrect eating or drinking . The wages of sin is death!

Isn’t it amazing how  food has become  such a dividing  wall in society?  Halaal, kosher, vegetarian, Banting  and  thousands of other  diets. People  become great evangelists and crusaders  for  food and drink! The statistics however remain  brutal. One out of one dies, diet or no diet!  All these emphases in their own right  and without gospel focus  are ultimately misplaced , for they do not focus on the gospel  which  truly gives life.  
So, we should have no arguments with people who are vegetarians, if that's the choice that they make. But the imposition of that on the conscience of others, we do have problems with, because it imposes something on the conscience of Jesus. Jesus ate the Passover lamb, and one of the last things recorded of Jesus is that He ate fish with the disciples on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, in His resurrection body!

The biggest point concerning  food  and  related  matters is this, and Paul  said it clearly : “The kingdom of God is not  matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness  and peace and joy  in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17). We should be passionate about that. Those are gospel matters, and the development of these in our lives are more important than food or drink.  Amen !

[1] 12th  February 2017 : Acts 10 :  “The  Gospel To the Ends of the Earth “
[2] Context : Moses giving instruction to the people of God on the plains of Moab, just before they cross over the River Jordan and into the promised land. It  had little to do with hygiene. It had  to do with separating Israel from the Canaanites. It was separating Israel from the surrounding nations.

[3] Gal  3:28

Monday, March 6, 2017

1 Timothy 6:11-21 “Persevere in Holiness to the end, with all you got!”

We  are now coming to the end of this first  letter to Timothy, and Paul ends  the letter with a personal note  to Timothy.   His  final word to Timothy  has to do mainly with  personal holiness or sanctification.   Believing as I always do, that God  speaks to us through His holy Word, I want to  apply  Paul’s exhortation concerning  the matter of personal holiness to  us as  followers of Christ  in the context of this church.   I have been asked to speak at a Reformed Family Conference in Durban in July on the subject, “Living holy lives in an unholy World”, and so the subject is much on my mind these days.

The Christian church of our age is not known for its great emphasis   on holy living, because any emphasis on holy living is often perceived to be legalistic. Furthermore, the doctrine of sanctification which is at the heart of holy living, has been presented in unbalanced ways in certain quarters of the Christian church for some time. For instance, some have taught that growth in holiness needed to be propelled by a crisis experience, or a second experience following one’s conversion - a so-called baptism in, with or by the Holy Spirit. The problem was that many sincere Christians never received such an experience, following   their genuine conversion to Christ. They were then told that they had no faith. They were told that they needed to let go and let God, and still nothing happened.  And they were in spiritual torment because of that.  They felt like second class Christians. This left many people spiritually confused.  Jim Packer, a great contemporary theologian was a product of this movement, until he, as he said, discovered the Puritan writings of the 17th century concerning which he says that they had “a great deal more wisdom about personal holiness than the 19th and 20th holiness teachers”[1].  

The classical view on sanctification, i.e. the view that the church has held by and large over the centuries of her existence, and the view that the   Reformed tradition, which is 500 years old this year, has held, is that sanctification or growth in holiness is progressive and not led by an instant experience that would propel one to higher levels of Christian living.    They saw sanctification as  an ascending graph, with its inevitable  ups and downs, but the general trend is up, because the Holy Spirit is steadily  at work in the believer.  The general trend that we see revealed in the Bible  is that we keep on growing   as Christians, and as followers of Christ,   and that we mature in our faith as time goes by. 

Now before I take you to the text, let me offer some further perspective on the nature of sanctification. There are two aspects to the doctrine of sanctification.  The first is a passive aspect.   Here is what we mean. Since Christians are in union with Christ, they have been sanctified through that union. If you are in Christ, you are holy.  You are sanctified, and therefore the Bible calls Christian people ‘saints’ (lit. holy ones). The point is that Christians are holy because  Christ has  made them holy. Paul in writing to the Corinthians said: “… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. “ Jesus has cleaned them. That is what we mean by the passive aspect of sanctification. In that sense we can add nothing to our holiness. Christ has done it all.  Christians are holy.  Period!

But, secondly, it is also true to say that   there is a sense in which we cannot simply be passive about that which Christ has done for us, and therefore we must also speak about the responsive aspect  of our sanctification.  Our conversion to Christ, if it is a true conversion,  must lead to an active commitment to holy living.  Not every convert to Christ grasps that, particularly if the church in which they find themselves does not actively encourage the process of spiritual growth and discipleship. If that is so, then growth in holiness may be retarded.

The circumstances surrounding the convert may also retard that process. Carl Hugo Hahn (1818-1895),a pioneer missionary in Namibia realised that the Herero converts at Otjimbingwe  easily compromised their commitment to holy living when they went back to their villages and to the  ways of their forefathers. This gave rise to the idea of the Missions -kolonie, whereby converts were encouraged to stay at the Mission station where they were discipled (catechised) in holy living, and where they were also taught various practical skills.

So, Paul strongly encourages   Timothy (using the imperative mood) to actively pursue holiness in terms of 5 verbs (words that denote action).   Take note that our quest for active holiness consists not only of things that we need to do, but also of the things that we need to avoid.

1.      Flee:  “Flee these things”. These “things” are mentioned in 6:4-5.  As Christian people we ought  not to be puffed up with conceit. We ought not to have an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions and constant friction. We need to flee from these things.  Those Christians who are rich need to flee from falling into the peculiar temptations associated with being rich (see vv. 9-10). This matter is so much on Paul’s heart, that he repeats it to Timothy, as he is about to close his epistle in vv. 17-19. Paul’s counsel to the rich in this present age are, both, by way of do’s and don’ts. He tells them not to be haughty; not to put their confidence in the uncertainty of riches, but positively, to trust God, who provides us with everything richly to enjoy and to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may  take hold of that which truly is   life.

2.       Pursue : Here follows a string  of  positive  (do!)  pursuits
(i)        Pursue righteousness:  “the state of heart and mind which is in harmony with God’s law“[2]
(ii)               Pursue godliness : the imitation of Christ who was in very nature God
(iii)             Pursue faith : here used in  the sense of active reliance on God  and His promises
(iv)             Pursue love  in the  spirit of  I Corinthians 13 :4-7
(v)          Pursue steadfastness (perseverance / steadfastness): bearing up under trials, no matter what the cost, knowing that future victory is sure. (Think of the  perseverance of Job)   
(vi)             Pursue  gentleness[3].   A meek disposition which was a mark of the life of Jesus.
All these graces are mark of holiness.

3.    Fight/ contest  (Gr. ag┼Źnizo) the good  fight of faith. [v.12a] The English word ‘agony’ comes from this term which was used in the   competition associated with the Greek athletic games. For Christians it means to live by our faith in God, and in that process to agonize against the temptations of our flesh, the world and the devil.   In this battle we are called to put on the whole armour of God. [Eph. 6:10-18].  Any Christian who does not see the need   of the daily fight for faith will be quickly overrun by sin and Satan. From  that perspective we need to learn that it does  take effort  to pursue holiness.

4.       Take hold (get a firm grip)  of  the eternal life to which you were called and about which you have made your good confession  in the presence of many witnesses  [v.12b]  Labour to get an understanding of the nature of your salvation.  Paul here makes reference to that confession which Timothy  made, when he publicly professed his faith in baptism before many witnesses. Frequently, in this Christian walk and in the fight to maintain a holy walk with God, we have to remind ourselves what we were saved from. As we do that, we can see the progress. May we all be able  to  say  with John Newton:  I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, "By the grace of God I am what I am."  John Newton understood his justification from God and he understood the nature of his sanctification.

5.       Keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” [v.14].The law of God, the commandment is summed up in the 10 commandments and it consists  basically of two applications: “Love God… love your neighbour.” This is the summary of our holiness code, and Paul says to Timothy, ”keep that commandment…until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Keep it by imitating Jesus,  who kept the entire law  [v.13]. Ungodly rulers like Pontius  Pilate knew that He had a holy man before him.The point here is not that Paul  commands  Timothy  to be sinlessly  perfect like Jesus, but that he encourages him to look to Jesus,  who has kept the law for him, and who has already  made him positionally  perfect  and holy and  able to keep the commandment.

In verses 15-16  Paul invites Timothy to have a vision of the blessed , sovereign King of kings and Lord of lords who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see…”  If you say this morning that  you simply cannot see how you can be  this sort of person, commanded in terms of these imperatives, then  look to Jesus  who invites you to look to Him and to draw strength from Him  and who can do through  you, exceedingly, abundantly above all that you  ever ask or think.
·         He will help you to flee from sin for He has overcome sin for us in His death on the cross.
·     He will help you in the pursuit of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness for these are the fruit of the Spirit, which    every true believer is empowered to exhibit.
·         He will help you to take hold of the eternal life, because, after all He Himself has called you to that eternal life.   
·         He will help you to fight the good fight of the faith. He has given you everything  from the armoury of God to withstand the evil day and the evil one  [Eph. 6:10-18]
·          He will help you to keep the  commandment, the law, the holiness code for He has commanded and empowered  you to keep  it.

Look to Him. In Christ God has given us  life - real life, and real ability to  be holy just as He is holy. When we shall come to the second letter of Timothy, we shall see that we do not lack a thing, and need to fear no thing, for God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self -control…. You have been saved and called into a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” [ 2 Timothy1:7-9]
And so Paul ends the letter with these words:  “O Timothy, guard  the deposit (treasured possession) entrusted to you.”  Refrain from worldly talking, empty and speculative teaching.  Refrain from false knowledge. And finally, rely on God's grace.  “Grace be with you” (Plural). For the ongoing life of the believer, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is essential. There is nothing that we are able to do apart from the grace of God, and there is nothing that God cannot do through us by His own grace. We are always dependent upon the grace of God.   And you have been enabled TO BE holy because you ARE holy. Amen!

[1] J.I. Packer on Personal Holiness
[2] W.Hendriksen :  1 &2 Thessalonians ; 1&2 Timothy & Titus , banner of Truth , p202
[3]Praupathia :  a meek disposition, meekness" (praus, "meek," pascho, "to suffer")